The West Ham changing room is buzzing. Mark Noble slaps you on the back while Carlton Cole is bouncing around making a fool of himself as the chart music blares out the stereo in the corner. Even Avram Grant has a smile on his face.
You can’t stop grinning as you remember how it felt. After a wretched six months on the sidelines, cut down by a freak injury while playing for your country before the season had even kicked off, you had finally made your Hammers debut.
The atmosphere was amazing. Upton Park under lights for the fifth round of the FA Cup. Then, in the 23rd minute it happened. Scott Parker fed you the ball mid-way inside the Burnley half – you took a couple of touches, cut inside from the right, and hit it.
You knew as soon as you made contact that it was going in. Lee Grant flew to his left but didn’t get close. The stadium erupted as the ball hit the net and for 10 seconds you forgot where and who you were as the ecstasy engulfed you. For those few special moments you forget everything. You forget that you are living a lie .
Four years have now passed since Thomas Hitzlsperger finally made his much-anticipated West Ham bow. Four eventful years that have seen the club relegated, promoted and secure the lease to the Olympic Stadium. For Thomas, the passage of time has been just as momentous. The 32-year-old doesn’t play football any more – injuries finally forced him to give up the game in 2013 – but he is, at last, now able to be honest with the world after coming out as gay.
‘Since I’ve come out I’ve had a lot of support,’ reflects Hitzlsperger as he ponders the impact of his announcement last January. ‘The response has been fantastic. I’ve been to football stadiums but I’ve not had a bad word from anyone – at least I didn´t notice if there was.’ It says a lot about the macho world of football that Hitzlsperger’s decision to come out as gay was such a big deal. The German received personal messages from Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as Die Adler national coach Joachim Löw
While gays and lesbians are now welcomed and treated as equals Hammer: Thomas Hitzlsperger was only at West Ham one season in almost every area of our society, homosexuality in football is the last taboo. It is telling that there is currently not one publically out footballer playing in any major professional league in Europe. ‘That’s why it made the headlines,’ he explains. ‘It´s so rare. In football there is not a single gay player. That´s hard to believe and why it is big news when someone does come out.
‘It shouldn´t be big news in 2015 although we have to consider that there are still countries, even in Europe, that don´t accept homosexuals. ‘If you are a professional footballer, and you don´t have a single football player that is openly gay, there is no one that you can look up to so it is difficult to deal with these feelings. In the beginning I didn´t know what these signs meant or who I could talk to.’
It is perhaps no surprise that Hitzlsperger would eventually be the man to put his head above the parapet, for the player had always walked a rather unconventional path – famously walking out on Bayern Munich aged 18 to move to England and sign for Aston Villa. ‘I played for Bayern as a schoolboy but, at the age of 17, I was offered a trial at Villa. I thought I would have a better chance of turning professional and getting in their team so I went over for it and they offered me a contract when I was 18.
‘I actually made my debut against West Ham. I came up against Joe Cole. I had a really good game and we won 1-0. ‘I had a fantastic time at the club. I remember some of the goals, especially against Birmingham City and West Brom, as well as some great characters I played with.’
After five years in the Midlands, Hitzlsperger was keen to return home and signed for Stuttgart on a Bosman transfer in the summer of 2005. It was there he played some of his best football of his career and became a regular in the German national team, before he eventually headed to Lazio and what he thought would be a new adventure in Italy in 2010.
However, his time in Rome was not a happy one and after just six months he was pining for a move back to England. ‘I wanted to play in the Premier League again,’ he explains. ‘I missed Happy: Thomas Hitzlsperger says he has had lots of support since coming out as gay the English culture, the wit and the politeness of the people. When I heard about West Ham´s interest I didn’t look anywhere else and knew this is where I wanted to go.’
In many ways it should have been a match made in heaven. The player known as ‘The Hammer’ – who by then had more than 50 international caps to his name – was exactly the sort of box to box midfielder the Upton Park faithful have loved over the years. But disaster struck before Hitzlsperger had even kicked a ball in anger for the Irons as he was seriously injured on the eve of the season playing for Germany against Denmark.
‘It was a nightmare,’ he adds. ‘I enjoyed pre-season, and not many players normally say that I can tell you, but I enjoyed it because I had a difficult time in Italy and was so happy to be at West Ham. ‘But then came the injury in the friendly. I thought I would only be out for up to six weeks and would then come back into the team so I wasn’t that worried at first.
‘It turned out that I ruptured my tendon and would be out until February. I was devastated.’ On the field the Hammers, in the midst of Avram Grant’s disastrous year in charge, were badly struggling and by the time Hitzlsperger was in a position to return to the first team the writing was pretty much on the wall. However, the player says he has at least a few positive memories from his time in east London.
‘I certainly remember my debut against Burnley,’ he laughs. ‘I was so much looking forward to finally playing for West Ham and it was a great night with a comfortable win. ‘I’ll never forget my first goal either. I also remember the goals against Stoke and Blackburn, but unfortunately, they weren´t enough to keep us up.’ It was around this time, while living in London, that Hitzlsperger first started to consider coming out and being open with his sexuality.
‘It really helped me to see that other professional sports people were acknowledging their sexuality,’ he added. ‘I read about John Amaechi and Gareth Thomas. They weren’t footballers but the fact that they went public gave me the feeling that I was not alone. ‘I thought it was time to talk about homosexuality in professional football, because up until then, all we heard were rumours. There Inspiration: The reaction to Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas was a big factor in Hitzlsperger’s decission to come out Fame: Several world leaders praised Thomas’s bravery had never been a serious debate about how it feels to be gay and a Premier League or Bundesliga player and how inclusive football really is. ‘I wanted to start a discussion
First though he had to sit down and have a very serious conversation with his family. ‘I was surprised and happy that they were all totally ok with it,’ he reveals. ‘Where I come from, in rural Bavaria, homosexuality is considered ‘un-normal’. I thought there would be negative reactions but it didn’t bother them. I’ve had nothing but total support from them.
‘It was good for me to have the support from family and friends. You need to speak to people you can trust. ‘There is plenty of support out there, it’s not hard to find, but you do need to feel comfortable enough to go and look for it.’ Having been genuinely touched by the response from his friends and family, Hitzlsperger gave serious thought in the summer of 2012 of coming out publically while playing for Wolfsburg.
They all said “don’t do it, a big wave will crash on you”,’ he explained. ‘But in the end I realised that nobody knows. There was no precedent, so everybody could only speculate on what would happen.’ Nevertheless, despite the ‘overwhelmingly positive reaction’ he has had since he did come out, Hitzlsperger understands how difficult it would be for an active player to follow in his footsteps – citing media attention and abuse from rival fans as the main reason to stay in the closet.
‘Most people I talked to in football said that they simply don´t care about the sexuality of anybody,’ he adds. ‘I guess players might fear the reactions from the fans though. There will be some abuse though, no doubt. It needs a strong character to face all of that. ‘But all players have to deal with abuse and criticism so it’s not a unique situation. Because there is no active gay player, we don´t know if or how homophobic football really is.’
The fear of the unknown may be stopping other footballers from going public with their sexuality. It would take a brave man to come out while he is still playing but, thanks to the courage of one former Hammer the task may feel slightly less daunting than it once did. And Hitzlsperger himself has some final words of advice for anyone who finds themselves in the same position he did. ‘Just enjoy the game to the full extent and don´t worry too much about what other people think,’ he added.
‘No one has to come out, but everyone should be happy where they are in life. ‘The coming out of athletes and celebrities can make a difference to those who don’t have the courage yet. ‘I´ve met people who thanked me for what I did. I changed their life, they said.